By Orlando R. Barone
My wife, who escaped Cuba in 1962 at age 13, has been asked by several people what she thinks of the death of Fidel Castro. She is not one for celebrating in the streets over anyone's death, nor did she feel celebratory.
"He was 90," she said. "He did the damage. If someone had killed him a lot earlier, I might have celebrated."
Maida got to our shores through the good offices of her parish pastor, Father John McKniff, an Augustinian priest who arranged for sponsors, an elderly couple in Philadelphia. She was thus spared a tour of duty in the Cuban countryside as a teacher implementing Fidel's literacy program and facing terrors no young girl should be subject to.
Our children look upon their mom as a woman of great courage and compassion, because she is. She was torn from her family, flown to a strange land, prohibited from speaking the only language she then knew, and, with no real support system, weathered deep culture shock well before that term became popular.
She sponsored her own parents' access to the United States five years after her arrival here. A few years later, her mother's brother, Jose Fiuza, escaped Cuba by boat and washed up on U.S. soil . . . sand, actually. When I met Tio Cheo in front of the bustling Versailles Restaurant on a lovely Miami night, he wrapped strong wiry arms around me with a hug that cracked no more than three or four ribs.
Tio's hatred for Castro was personal. He was rounded up as an active resister of the regime he fought from the time Castro embraced Soviet style communism. He survived internment in a beachfront camp, where at least half of his allies died awful deaths.
He attributed his survival to his willingness to provide services to his guards. He cooked them rice and beans, scrubbed pots and pans, and fixed what needed fixing. Tio was a genius at repairing the irreparable, so he was valuable.
One day, a pot of boiling oil tipped over and it splashed third-degree burns down his arm. He was transported by donkey cart and cattle car to a place where a doctor welcomed him with news that the doctor had no medicine with which to treat the indescribably painful wound. Tio depended on a village woman to dispense an herbal salve, which he said saved the limb.
Soon after, he secured a boat and fled the island. His recapture would have placed him on Castro's lengthy list of the disappeared. Tio never learned English, but he loved America and began working immediately as a contractor whose talent for fixing things assured him a steady clientele. He bought a boat and fished for food and for the freedom of the open water. He never stopped smiling once he stepped onto the little craft. You'd have loved that smile.
Maida and I once accompanied Tio Cheo and his sister, Maida's mom, to their ancestral homeland in Galicia, Spain. We saw the ruins of the family home from which Tio's father and uncles set sail for Cuba and Argentina.
I came to see that these brave souls were voyagers, vagabonds ever in search of a better life for themselves and their offspring. Castro was just one more goad to tread to the beach and leap into the welcoming hands of the sea ready to wash them clean of what they were and wave them on to what they were to become.
All it took was dissatisfaction with their current state and faith that the other shore would yield a great store of treasure to those willing to brave the storms and work hard.
And yet my strongest memory of Tio is not his vaunted bravery or his deep scars. I recollect our final day in Galicia at the home of his cousin, Ramona.
He slipped down to the hardware store and returned with the supplies needed to paint the wrought-iron railings leading to her front door. This was how he said gracias for the hospitality. He simply made his cousin's world a tiny bit more beautiful.
It could be that this impulse to beautify derived from the years of witnessing a tyrant who left a trail of ugliness, but that idea is a disservice to Tio and gives Castro more credit than he deserves.
No, Tio Cheo was an inherently kind human being. Adding a brush stroke of beauty to a world in great need of repair was not just something he did. It embodied what he was.